Demented Innocence

By Heather Snider

Roger Ballen first gained widespread attention with the release of his third book,Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994). Since that time Ballen has expanded his vision and reputation by building outward from documentary portraiture into a highly complex, personal style, taking his photography into a fascinating, cryptic, vision of the human psyche. Originally from New York, Ballen has been living in South Africa for 30 years. We recently spoke with him about his current work and the path his art has taken over the last 10 years.

Heather Snider: You have a new book, Shadow Chamber (Phaidon), and two exhibitions opening this autumn. How would you describe your latest work?

Roger Ballen: In a way it is about a strange, ambiguous, dark, and comic place. It is a space that we might recognize; yet we are not quite clear where it is. It is not necessarily a place that you would want to visit or spend a Sunday afternoon. It has elements that are both disturbing and humorous.

HS: Have all of your books been about a place?

RB: My first published project was Boyhood in 1978. Boyhood was about my childhood and was not about a place; in fact I traveled around quite a bit for that series. The first South African project I published was Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1985), which I still believe is the most important book I’ve done. The third book, Platteland, deals with an archetypal group of people who express a sensibility of alienation, fear, and marginalization. After Platteland I started to make statements that went beyond the social dynamics of a particular place. My last book, Outland, was more aesthetic and psychological, somewhere between fact and fiction.

HS: What do you think brought about these changes?

RB: It is difficult to say, and it wasn’t that I woke up one day and began seeing things differently. There were many little steps along the way. It’s like ageing, every day you get a little older and I am older now.

HS: Do you think that you were looking and responding to your own work or were there influences coming from the outside art world?

RB: I believe it was a combination of the two. When Platteland was published I was surprised by the attention and the controversy that it received. I wasn’t prepared for this response. I work as a geologist and even though I’ve done photography my whole life, in those days photography was purely a hobby. Of course I’ve always been passionate about photography but with Platteland I was propelled into another sphere, one that I didn’t know much about.

In 1997, I began spending time in Europe visiting galleries and speaking to people about art. I saw what other artists were doing and that definitely had an influence on me. Up until then I was quite cocooned in South Africa. I didn’t go to many shows and I was involved in all sorts of things other than photography. As a result I began to take my photography more seriously.

Now I don’t feel much of a need to see other people’s work. The major leaps and innovations I am making come from looking at and taking my own photographs. I think that these photographs are the footprints that I follow most closely; they really are the writing on the wall.

HS: In the case of your work the writing is quite literally on the wall, in that you have images with marks and writing on walls that suggest a need for decoding and interpretation by the viewer.

RB: I try to create a complex visual interaction of signs and symbols, to create a meaning that is beyond literal explanation. I see the lines and markings as similar to those in Twombly drawings, or graffiti, or even cave drawings. The formal elements in my work are crucial to my style and to an understanding of my photography. The formal elements are as important as the people in my work. Take away even one line and the photograph won’t work.

In the last 6 months I’ve hardly taken a picture of a person. The work is becoming more like still life, more abstract, even more like painting and less like photography. You can see the transition in Shadow Chamber from images like those in Outland to the later ones in which drawings, texture and objects start to become the primary focus.

HS: Who would you say are your favorite artists or whose work has influenced you?

RB: Magnum and the traditional photographers influenced me as a young man, but I’ve never been a person who worries about one artist versus another artist. Artists like Picasso, Miro, and Henry Moore, whose works have depth of meaning, fluidity of form, and complex metaphors, impress me. If I can try to emulate that quality of art, that is all I really need to do. Over the last few years I’ve been looking more at painting and sculpture and less at photography.

What is most important is to establish in your own mind what you are trying to achieve as an artist, to find your own style as a reflection of who you are, and not to react to every change that happens in the art world. For example, I don’t intend to do anything but black and white film photography for the rest of my life and I think that my goal is to penetrate further, to get more deeply embedded. To me that is the most important thing. To chase the art world will only bring confusion to one’s work. One of the benefits for me of living in South Africa is that the art world isn’t so prevalent here.

HS: Although you emphasize the formal element of your work, one of the most attention grabbing forces here, especially in your earlier work, is the physical oddness, the freakishness if you will, of your subjects’ appearances. Although there is an obvious strength and depth to your work that goes beyond mere surfaces, you have nonetheless sought out people whose appearances are often shocking…

RB: I really don’t know why I sought out these people. I don’t know why I like green rather than red. I’m not quite clear where it all came from, though I’m sure there are deep psychological reasons that I can’t really fathom.

HS: How do you feel about photographing these people, using their physical appearance for its evocative impact?

RB: What you need to understand is that most anyone who asked me to photograph them would end up looking very close to the people you see in Outland and Platteland. Part of the answer to your question is in the way I see and photograph. Every day when you open the newspaper or walk down the street you see things that are more distressing ultimately than the pictures I take. I’ve reduced things to a certain level and what I’m spelling out, and what those people mean, well, they are like Beckett characters: they symbolize something that is deep inside the human psyche and many people are not sure if they want to accept this or reject it, because it can be quite disconcerting.

HS: How would you describe the relationship that you have with the people you photograph?

RB: They are like friends and family. Most of them I’ve known for years and years. I have a very good relationship with these people. But there are some people in my photographs whom I only met once and never saw again. If you know someone it may be that they trust you and it’s easier to work with them. On the other hand, there is a level of intensity when you meet people on the street one time and you know that you only have this one chance to photograph them. You may find things that you wouldn’t find when you’ve known someone for 25 years. For example, I created Twirling Wires(2002), the cover image of Shadow Chamber, the first time I ever worked with this man.

HS: How do you meet the people you photograph? Are all of the people you work with South African?

RB: Most, but not all, of the people in Shadow Chamber are from the Johannesburg area. Since 1994, I haven’t been traveling around in the countryside like I used to. Finding a person to photograph is the easy part. It’s what you do with them that matters, how you create something that has complexity and universal impact. That’s not so simple to do and fundamentally my photography is only about my imagination. What I recognize in a subject is a result of the way I see and the way my mind works.

HS: How do you think they see you?

RB: I really don’t know. I can’t enter someone else’s mind. I think the people I work with enjoy the stimulus; it’s a different kind of experience for them. They find it interesting being photographed, they like the humor that comes out of working together.

HS: As your photography has progressed over the years you have moved away from the documentary approach. Now you use elements of the outside world to create an inner world, a symbolic mindscape. Would you go so far to say that your subjects are actors representing your own mental projection? Is there anything to be seen here that arises from the subjects themselves?

RB: I feel that my images reflect my psyche. If you and I photographed the same person we’d end up with entirely different pictures. I’ve developed a style, a way of seeing. What I want is to create a photograph that has it’s own life, that can speak for itself and doesn’t need to be explained.

HS: How much do you construct or pre-visualize the photographs you make?

RB: I rarely start with any specific ideas. It’s just too unpredictable. I think photography is very much about the moment and that’s what makes it different from other art forms. What I find challenging and interesting, even in the photographs with no people in them, is that when I’m photographing the same thing over and over again, no two pictures are the same. Even in the most stagnant situation I am seeing a unique moment, a glimpse of what we might refer to as ‘truth.’

HS: And yet this truth is elusive, beyond examination, which is what I believe gives your work a lasting interest…

RB: I’ve been living 54 years now, and perhaps billions of images are stored, in some way, in my mind. Theoretically, every time I blink another image enters my memory. What stays there is unfathomable but the resource of images is there and through my photography I connect these images with the outside world. This dynamic between interior and exterior space is what I try to deal with in my work. Most importantly, I hope to create messages, with intensity and simplicity that will have a meaningful impact on the viewer. A photograph succeeds when this connection is made.

Shadow Chamber will be published by Phaidon in September 2005.

A traveling exhibition of Roger Ballen’s photographs opens in September at the Franz Hal Museum, Haarlem and the Reflex Gallery, Amsterdam.

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